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This story first appeared in the June 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I met Jean in 1969 when we were making a movie called Cold Turkey. A wonderful woman named Marion Dougherty reminded me I’d seen her in Damn Yankees. But I didn’t remember, and without Marion’s help, I never would have found her. She was a great, great casting director at Warners. I think someone is writing a book about her.
Anyway, she brought Jean in and I loved her. I said, “You’ll be perfect; you can play the mayor’s wife,” and just as she was leaving for a train to Bucks County, I said, “There’s one thing I think I should tell you. I had an Aunt Rose who used to sneeze a lot in the early morning. I remember her coming into the kitchen wearing a kimono over a nightgown when I was about 9, sneezing away and opening the refrigerator. She reached down to get something, sneezed, and one breast fell out that she quickly tucked away, like in half a second. I want to do that with the mayor’s wife.” And Jean said, “That sounds all right.”
Twenty minutes later, we were reading somebody else for another part and Jean calls from Penn Station. She’d been thinking and wasn’t sure she could go through with the refrigerator scene. In a delightful way, she said maybe we should think of someone else. And I said, “No way, you’re in the movie. You can keep the boob in the kimono.”
Jean Stapleton was the Edith of All in the Family in the sense that she was clearly pure and good. You could count on Jean to be in the role every split second she was working. When we were doing the show, she was amenable to trying anything and everything. Edith’s voice was something she came up with entirely on her own. All those characters were a combination of the script and the actors. I’ll take pride in having cast the show, but what was written grew better by what they put into it. In whatever way they interacted — either Archie with Edith, or Archie with Mike — in every direction there was magic.
I came up with the idea for Edith to die after the first season of the spinoff Archie Bunker’s Place. Carroll O’Connor wanted to go on with what became Archie Bunker’s Place, and the rest of us did not. We just thought it was time to hang up the shingle. Jean did the first season then wanted out, and I wanted to help her. So I suggested the death. It would be a good start for the show’s second season, give it a big, emotional kickoff. Then we worked out a deal where CBS made a $500,000 donation to the National Organization for Women to start a memorial fund in Edith’s name. And they raised I don’t know how much more, using Edith as the centerpiece of the campaign. Even in death, Edith and Jean had magic.
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Robert De Niro